When it comes to writing your college application essays, playing it safe can make you seem less appealing, boring, and well, just plain forgettable in the eyes of the admissions committees (we call them adcoms). Who wants that?
So then… you want to take risks in your writing, eh? Excellent. You’re on your way. But beware… there are bad risks as well as good ones, and you’re going to want to avoid them (here’s how), the same way you avoid Aunt Sally’s habanero-infused chili. But I digress.
GOOD RISK. Ah, magnificent, irreplaceable. Yes, good risk can elevate an essay to marvelous, memorable heights, and it comes in a few flavors—which aren’t mutually exclusive, mind you. Let’s explore your options.
1. Be Truthful About Who You Are, The Way You Feel, And Why
The first and best kind of good risk is emotional honesty. Many applicants are afraid to reveal their true sentiments for fear of being judged or seen as overly sensitive, weak, or even unstable. However, it’s so refreshing in an application essay to hear how someone really feels. We’re emotional beings, and one of the easiest ways to relate to another person (i.e. an admissions officer) is to share your feelings. Instead of describing the dry narrative of an achievement, tell us how you reacted emotionally. Baring just a little bit of your soul can go a long way.
2. Show Your Vulnerability, It Makes You Human
The second type of good risk goes hand in hand with emotional honesty: showing vulnerability. You can’t help but do this when being emotionally honest (you’re giving access to your innermost feelings, after all), but it goes deeper than that. Showing vulnerability is a way of humbling yourself, of saying, “Hey, I’m not perfect… I’ve got my flaws.” The important thing to remember is that you must always follow up with a positive glimpse into the future (i.e. talk about how you’re going to improve and address/conquer these shortcomings). Self-deprecation is good, but it’s most effective when paired with an earnest resolution for improvement.
3. Give Fresh Perspective On Something Common
Finally, good risk can mean presenting a seemingly bland topic from an unexpected angle. Many applicants write about their relationships with parents or older siblings—how they look up to them, are inspired by their example, etc. This is common, so if you’re going to write about it, you need a fresh perspective. I can’t tell you exactly what this fresh perspective is, because it needs to come from inside you. In other words, you’re the only person on Earth who is able to tell your narrative in a personal way.
For illustration, I’ll provide you with an example, straight from the mind of our brilliant senior consultant Cleo Handler. In her application essay, Cleo picked a common topic—her love of the Harry Potter series—and dealt with it in an unexpected way. Instead of gushing about the books or characters themselves, Cleo spoke about how her admiration of the series helped provide her with something more intangible: a feeling of interconnectedness with her generation.
In her essay, she described the collective atmosphere of waiting together with others for each book’s new release—everyone bundled up in the cold, chatting with excitement, sharing hot chocolate—as well as the companionship she felt later on while discussing the varied reactions to the novels. Ultimately, Cleo converted well-worn territory into fertile ground with her fresh perspective, allowing her to craft a unique, winning application essay.
That’s what we’re aiming for anyway, right? A fabulous essay is a reward in itself, and oftentimes the greater risk provides the greater reward. We’re also after another reward, one that is coveted amongst the hundreds of thousands of applicants annually. That reward? Admission to a top university, of course.
Now that you know about the right sort of risks to take, let’s look at some you’re definitely going to want to avoid.